September 17th, 2009  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  17 Comments

Now that the world is convinced that the swine flu apocalypse is nigh and the season of snottynosed brats at daycare is upon us, I’d like to draw your attention to a very easy, yet important, public health and prevention measure.

Vitamin D.

Recent research, confirmed by the World Health Organization, indicates that an enormous number of people are deficient in vitamin D. One study from U of Calgary suggests that up to 97% (!!) of Canadians are deficient at least occasionally.

As you know we manufacture D from sunlight. However our bodies evolved to be naked in Africa, not clothed under fluorescent lights. There is almost NO source of D naturally occurring in food.

And yet Vitamin D plays a crucial role in our body’s metabolism, almost more so than nearly any other vitamin. For example it helps regulate our calcium metabolism and thus bone health. It lowers cancer and cardiovascular disease risk. Indeed, a study using US national health data showed that vitamin D independently predicted risk of premature death from all cause mortality — in other words, low vitamin D = more risk of dying early from chronic disease.

In particular, D is involved in regulating and boosting our natural immunity.

A preponderance of evidence shows that D deficiencies create depressed immune systems, which leaves you vulnerable to micro-organisms. This is one key reason that incidence of colds/flus etc increases in winter. (Or you can take my word for it. Trust me: I’m a doctor.)

How much to take? To achieve a “summertime sunlight” blood concentration of about 50 ng (that’s nanograms) per mL of blood, studies have found that somewhere between 3000 to 5000 IU daily is needed.

The average person can probably benefit from around 2000 IU in the winter. The author of the study listed below notes that “studies indicate that ideal daily doses of vitamin D exceed current recommendations by an order of magnitude.”

In other words, current recommendations are WAY too low.

People with darker skin are more at risk, as are people living farther north — e.g. people of African or South Asian descent, many First Nations people in Canada (esp. those not eating a traditional diet). Also at risk of major deficiency are children, adolescents, and older people. Um, so basically everyone.

But isn’t D toxic?

Well, “administration of 4000 IU/day of vitamin D for more than 6 months to middle-age Canadian endocrinology outpatients, resulted in average 25(OH)D levels of 44 ng/ml [close to what we want] and produced no side-effects other than an improved mood.” (Cannell 2006)

In other words, not as much as we’ve been led to believe.

Vitamin D is cheap and easily available. Buy the D3 aka cholecalciferol, the animal-derived format, rather than D2, which is relatively poorly converted.

My recommendation is to take *at least* 1000 IU a day starting right now. As the weather gets colder and we move inside, bump the dose to at least 2000 IU. Take it with food, in divided doses if you like. Just take it.

And say sayonara to swine.

Cannell, JJ et al. Review Article: Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiol. Infect. (2006), 134, 1129–1140. doi:10.1017/S0950268806007175


  1. Jac Lynn says:

    September 17th, 2009at 5:43 am(#)

    One of my clients was recommended Vitamin D by his doctor when having side effects from Statin drugs for lowering his Cholesterol. It worked for him.

  2. Lillian says:

    September 17th, 2009at 10:50 am(#)

    In the winter I take cod liver oil as a way to get my vitamins A, D, and omega-3s all in one big spoonful. It doesn’t taste the greatest, but the lemon flavored stuff isn’t too bad. It’s certainly better than getting the winter blues!

  3. KS says:

    September 17th, 2009at 1:53 pm(#)

    I’ve heard that pickled herring is a good source, but I haven’t been able to find “how much” vit D is in a serving of it. I get the small containers of pickled herring snacks at the grocery store but I often “forget” to eat them (they’re pretty gross).

  4. Lauren says:

    September 17th, 2009at 2:13 pm(#)

    So, if I take some Vitamin D and actually wash my hands properly (hot water, soap, 20 seconds of scrubbing) then I’ll pretty much be invincible right?

  5. Trishy says:

    September 17th, 2009at 2:28 pm(#)

    What about the vitamin D that is added to milk? Not enough, I guess?

  6. Pat says:

    September 17th, 2009at 7:03 pm(#)

    I’ve been taking 1000 IU of Vitamin D/day for over a year, and I’ve not been sick at all during this time. Have I been in a better mood? Hmmm, maybe better ask my husband. LOL

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    September 18th, 2009at 4:35 am(#)

    Sir/Madam: I take umbrage at your malevolent characterization of pickled herring. It is true that they are aesthetically unappealing — some would say grotesque — but they taste awesome on a good flatbread with apples and mustard. :)

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    September 18th, 2009at 4:36 am(#)

    Lauren: Yes, exactly. You are now immortal. Go stick your face in a bee’s hive. The results will amaze you!

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    September 18th, 2009at 4:36 am(#)

    Trishy — check the dosage. It’s probably quite low.

  10. Ingrid says:

    September 18th, 2009at 8:37 pm(#)

    Lauren’s absolutely right! Having survived the swine flu epidemic in Oz this winter without even a cold (fingers crossed now), the other thing to do is have a flu shot before your winter really gets underway… Swine flu swept through our workplace with varying degrees of severity & the best thing is not to get it – it is very nasty even for healthy individuals. Good luck Canada!

  11. Trishy says:

    September 19th, 2009at 10:02 am(#)

    If my vitamin chemistry is still correct, then I remember vitamin D being a fat-soluble vitamin (along with A, E, and K). Since we synthesize D upon exposure to sunlight, is it possible that a sunny day spent outside would allow enough of the vitamin to be synthesized and stored so that the “average” level over the rest of the week would be normal? I also wonder how much of this population-level vitamin D deficiency is related to sunscreen use. Sunscreen is a good thing, of course, but it must hinder vitamin D synthesis.

  12. Kat says:

    September 19th, 2009at 1:15 pm(#)

    It’s worth mentioning that Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) has also been shown to be toxic, especially at high levels. That extra double bond really screws things up for your liver enzymes, plus you get very little benefit from it.

    Vitamin D3, ergocalciferol, is where it’s at. I’ve been taking 1000 IU on cloudy days (which is most of the fall, winter, and spring where I am) for the past year and have not been sick, and I’m pretty sure I have been happier too (though I’ve also increased my physical activity, which I’m sure helps).

    Bottom line: Vitamin D3. Yes.

  13. Janna says:

    September 21st, 2009at 12:41 pm(#)

    I’m relieved you didn’t suggest tanning beds! I’ve recently (unfortunately) observed two cases of life-threatening skin cancer in friends who thought tanning was healthy. Many people don’t realize how powerful (and irreversible) UVA and UVB damage it.

    Vitamin D = :)….Any tan=skin damage. Tanning is an outdated aesthetic and there are safer ways to get Vitamin D. Thanks for this article.

  14. Candace Fountain says:

    September 23rd, 2009at 8:48 pm(#)

    Do you know if it is safe to take 1000IU of Vitamin D while breastfeeding?

  15. Mistress Krista says:

    September 24th, 2009at 5:56 am(#)

    Very likely vitamin D is not only safe but crucial (as is intake of omega-3 fatty acids from marine — not plant — sources).

  16. Ammi says:

    September 25th, 2009at 8:37 am(#)

    I was reading Chris Shugart’s article on Vitamin D the other day ( http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_nutrition/d_is_for_doping ) and thinking that I needed up up my D supplementation.

    I think you’re bang on with 1000 IU a day being the minimum Krista. Thanks for the handy information about the types of Vit D (before I start buying the necessary supplementation).

    Lillian: I’ve found that a really easy way to get cod liver oil down me is to drizzle the necessary dosage over dinner (especially things like cabbage, bolognese, chilli etc). The flavour quickly gets drowned out. Or even better is stirring it in with my tuna snack – you never notice the extra fish flavour then!

  17. Blog-watch: Vitamin D says:

    October 2nd, 2009at 3:09 pm(#)

    […] Swine-B-Gon:  continuing on the swine flu theme, Mistress Krista on Stumptuous did a post about the recent research into Vitamin D.  This article also has handy information about the different types of Vitamin D, which I was unaware of before now. […]

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